As the world is closely following the election campaign in the US, a small country in the North of Europe is making a new, political start. Only two years after Geert Wilders’ right-wing Freedom Party (PVV) burst into the Dutch House of Representatives (the third largest party to come out of the elections), the nation was called to the polls again after Wilders withdrew his support to the minority government of Mark Rutte’s centre-right liberal party (VVD) and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), due to divergences over austerity. Perhaps Wilders was counting on Dutch Euroscepticism, which showed its face so clearly in the 2005 vote against the EU constitution. Indeed, Wilders argued – as Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell explain in Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy – that the Netherlands should retain its independence and reduce its contributions to the European Union.
Renowned, for centuries, for its (religious) tolerance, cultural and religious tensions have grown fast with the advent of many Arab immigrants over the past few decades. Critical events such as 9/11 have not helped the situation: when Moroccan youth set out to celebrate the attacks publicly, discussions about respect followed. Respect for the Muslim community, that is, which simply interprets similar events in a different way, so sociologists claimed. This sounds excessively tolerant, but is it not merely political correctness? Politicians in particular are fearful of touching delicate issues and being accused of political incorrectness, and so prefer to ignore the immigration issue altogether.
The first politician (though not in the common sense of the word) to break this “taboo” was Pim Fortuyn, spokesman of an explicit anti-immigration policy. Fortuyn turned Dutch politics upside down with his flamboyant character and down-to-earth vocabulary. His critique of Islam – a “retarded culture,” in his words – provoked many debates about tolerance and freedom of speech. His assassination, just before the elections in 2002, was nevertheless a shock for both adversaries and supporters, and left a deep wound in Dutch society.
Only a few years later, the country was struck by a second political murder: the provocative movie maker and publicist Theo van Gogh, who made a life habit out of defying the Dutch Islamic society, was brutally murdered by a Muslim extremist. He had publicly denounced the situation of Muslim women in his movie Submission (2004), written in collaboration with a former immigrant and VVD politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Then came along Geert Wilders. Wilders too had started his career in the VVD, but left the party as a result of its positive stance on the possible entry of Turkey in the European Union. He created his own party, and made his own anti-Islam movie. Wilders did not get permission to release Fitna (2008), which depicts the Islam as a terrorist, intolerant and hate-baring religion out to dominate the world by going to war with anyone who opposes to it, though it was shown for a brief period on the British video sharing website Liveleak.
Fitna got Wilders some (bad) publicity, which in the end paid out. However, the dream didn’t last long as the Freedom Party clashed with the VVD over austerity cuts, earlier in 2012, and new elections were called. Surprisingly, it is the pro-European parties to come out of the elections as winners: VVD (41 seats) and the labour PvdA (39). Wilders’ party has decreased almost by half, slumping from 24 to 15 seats, whereas the other Eurosceptic party, the radical left-wing SGP, is at 3. The Christian Democrats, which more or less ruled the country between 2002 and 2010, have shrunk below the Freedom Party (13 seats). The Socialist Party (SP) managed to hang on to its 15 seats, while the pro-European D66 has gained 2, and is now at 12 seats. Clearly, the Dutch are playing safe. They may not like the thought of austerity measures, but it seems they feel that with the radical and populist no-Europe parties, Holland isn’t going to get anywhere in Europe. In addition, the VVD has publicly opposed itself to more financial aids for Greece, which will have sounded like music to the ears of many Dutch, who have been reported to refuse paying their bills in Greek restaurants. And so Rutte picked up a few former Wilders voters.
Political scientists see few options for coalitions, and it is likely the two winners will govern together, unless Rutte manages to patch together a coalition with minor parties, such as D66 or SP. Should there be a Lib-Lab coalition, debates over spending cuts and tax rises will be fierce, even if it must be said that the labour have taken several steps back, over the Summer, as Socialist leader Emile Roemer took the lead in opinion polls (38 seats).
All this demonstrates that in times of political and social turmoil, the Dutch don’t like to risk too much. Hence their massive support for the centrist Christian Democrats – guided by the reassuring Harry Potter-face of Jan Peter Balkenende – after Fortuyn’s murder in 2002, and the refusal of radical parties on 12 September 2012, in favour of a more Eurocentric route which will have to find a midway between Merkel’s austerity politics and Hollande’s socialist approach.